"Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" is yet another vampire film, one more revival of Bram Stoker's evil and insatiable count. But this time, it's one that may surprise you. Stoker's oft-filmed legend of the bloodthirsty undead is filtered through a different but congenial sensibility, with Canadian independent virtuoso Guy Maddin giving the whole vampire myth a lusciously sinister new spin.
Maddin's new film was made in collaboration with Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and it's essentially a record of their Dracula ballet, adapted and choreographed by Mark Godden. The story comes from Bram Stoker's novel, and partly from the dozens of screen and stage adaptations since.
Magnificently sensuous and macabre, the music is from Gustav Mahler's first two symphonies, and the action follows Count Dracula's (Zhang Wei-Qiang) seduction of Lucy Westernra (Tara Birtwhistle) and Mina Murray (CindyMarie Small), while the determined vampire-hunters, including stern Professor Van Helsing (David Moroni) and Lucy's fiance Jonathon Harker (Johnny Wright), hunt him down. Railing away back in the asylum is Dracula's depraved assistant Renfield (Brent Neale).
Through voluptuous British mansion sets, shimmering with silks and shadows and drenched in the eerie nocturnes of monochrome, the sexy and sinister Dracula pursues, woos and bites his ladyloves - and is pursued himself. While Mahler's music thrums and soars, at one point turning the child's song "Frere Jacques" into a danse macabre, Dracula casts his spell. Under this hands and teeth, the women blossom into evil, while Van Helsing's band, puritans in evening clothes, are like vengeful exterminators, bent on the destruction of glamour and wickedness.
These are characters we've seen many times, from F.W. Murnau's classic 1922 German adaptation "Nosferatu" to Francis Coppola's lush 1992 "Dracula" with Gary Oldman as the count and Wynona Ryder as Lucy. But Maddin, as you'd expect, creates a new world: black and white, with flashes of color (blood-red intrusions). His "Dracula" is closer in spirit to Murnau's silent - and to Tod Browning's famous 1931 talkie, with Bela Lugosi - than it is to Coppola's fiery spectacle. Confined by Goddard's ballet, he keeps the arena minimal, the stage dreamily compact. But, like Coppola, he's made this a "Dracula" that's aware of all the others, as well as modern psychosexual commentary, post-Freud psychology and AIDS.
This Chinese Dracula is seducer, outlaw and menace. But he's also a powerfully romantic figure (as he often has been in recent decades), and the vampire hunters after him seem something of a lynch mob. Yet Maddin, as usual, steeps us in the mood of the past. This "Dracula," like all his work, might be palmed off to the unwary as an archival treasure from the late '20s. As we watch, Maddin and his crew (including editor deco dawson and art director Deanne Rohde) transport us back to a time when black and white cinematography was natural and silence (at least from the actors) was golden. And they show us again how monochrome images, far from destroying illusion, can actually vitalize our imagination.
The dancers and their choreography are secondary to the images here. But they perform well, especially Zhang and Birtwhistle. More important, the constant music and the exaggerated flow of gesture and movement help steep us in the film's spooky lyricism.
If there's a problem with Maddin's "Dracula," winner of several Canadian and world television and fantasy film awards, it's that Maddin isn't purely offering his own unique vision here, but instead using his style to convey the visions of others. Maddin's great films bewitch us as much for their wit and eccentricity of his scripts as they do for the weird felicities of his visual style. Here, his inspiration is limited by the bonds of the dance. But, in a way, that leaves him free to indulge his visual knack, to drown us in jewel-like imagery of murk, dread and sexual hysteria. So he does. This is a "Dracula" to dream on.
"Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary"
Directed and written by Guy Maddin; based on Bram Stoker's novel and on Mark Godden's ballet for Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet; adapted and choreographed by Godden; photographed by Paul Suderman; edited by deco dawson; production designed by Deanne Rohde; music by Gustav Mahler; produced by Vonnie Von Helmolt. A Zeitgeist Films release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:15. No MPAA rating. Adult (parents cautioned for sexuality and violence).
Count Dracula - Zhang Wei-Qiang
Lucy - Tara Birtwhistle
Van Helsing - David Moroni
Mina - CindyMarie Small
Jonathan Harker - Johnny Wright
Renfield - Brent Neale